PLOT: Near the start of his second term in office- and in the forth bloody year of the Civil War, president Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) fights to abolish slavery by putting forth an amendment in the House of Representatives- which is fought tooth and nail by the Democratic opposition, as well as many in his own party.
REVIEW: After having promised us the definitive Abraham Lincoln biopic for decades (which was to star Liam Neeson at one point), Steven Spielbergís mammoth tribute to the man, LINCOLN, has finally arrived. While the name Spielberg promises an epic, the final product is surprisingly intimate and focused, with the film only following Lincoln at the very end of his life- where he devoted all of his energy to ensuring that slaves were definitively free, lest his emancipation proclamation be repealed once the Civil War ended.
While part of me wishes Spielberg had made an epic biopic following his entire life, it canít be denied that the finished film captures the soul of the man in way he might not otherwise have managed. After watching LINCOLN, youíll likely walk away with a greater understanding of the man who remains the most inspiring political figure of all time- whether youíre American or not. Like Abe himself states in the movie, slavery was a pestilence on the soul of the country. But, by fighting to have it abolished, Lincoln is forced to, in effect, extend the war- and the inner turmoil suffered by Lincoln is perfectly encapsulated by Daniel Day-Lewis, in another of a long run of incredible performances.
Sure enough, itís hard to imagine anyone else playing the man, and the way Day-Lewis becomes Lincoln is a towering achievement. Whether is Lincoln the father (he dotes over his youngest son, who climbs his lanky frame like a jungle gym), Lincoln the politician, the husband (with his fragile, deeply depressed wife Mary Todd being played by Sally Field in her best role in decades)- you get a good sense of all the manís layers. Most of all though- itís Lincoln the man who gets the lionís share of attention, with Day-Lewis downplaying the intensity to play the always cordial president, and conveying his unlimited capacity for compassion (and tendency to indulge in cute, folksy stories- which is something I never knew about the man).
Physically, Day-Lewis allows himself to get more and more emaciated as the film goes on- with Jared Harris' Ulysses S. Grant (terrific in a small part) commenting later that Lincoln seems to have aged ten years in one. His vocal work is similarly astonishing, to the extent that his famous voice- so powerfully used in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, is virtually unrecognizable.
No one's going to deny to Day-Lewis is Oscar-worthy for his role (him not getting at least a nomination seems inconceivable)- and while he utterly dominates virtually every frame of the film, one can't dismiss Spielberg's supporting cast- which is a who's who of character actors. David Costabile (from BREAKING BAD), Lee Pace, Harris, Field, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson are just a few of the big names assembled for the various representatives and political allies and opposition. Everyone is terrific. But, even in a cast of standouts, there are always even bigger standouts.
While Day-Lewis may indeed win the Oscar, something tells me he won't be alone at the podium, with none other than Tommy Lee Jones giving what just might be the performance of his career as Lincoln's fellow abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Sporting Stevens' signature black wig and haggard appearance, Jones is the one guy in the cast that really gives Lewis a run for his money, and Jones is absolutely riveting. Possibly even more devoted to the cause of freedom than Lincoln- Jones as Stevens has several amazing verbal jousts with the democratic opposition, along with an unexpectedly moving final scene that reveals the surprising depth of his passion for equality. Having already seen a lot of the big Oscar contenders, I'm comfortable saying Jones is all but guaranteed a nomination- although a win is another story.
The other standout is, in a smallish role, James Spader- who, after spending a season on THE OFFICE, is back on the big screen as one of Lincoln's operatives, tasked with ďinspiringĒ (be it through blackmail or the promise of jobs) the democratic opposition to vote to abolish. Spader looks significantly heavier than he did on THE OFFICE, but his gregariousness, and slovenly matters (along with repeated uses of old-timey swearing) makes him all but steal every scene he's in.
Considering the cast, and the impeccable scripting by Tony Kushner (working from the book 'Team of Rivals')- is LINCOLN one of Spielberg's truly great films? I'd say it's just below top-tier- which is still better than most directors are capable of. Sure enough, there are moments of greatness here that compare to anything he's ever done, including the desperate civil war battle that opens the film, and a shocking sequence where Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as one of Lincoln's sons) discovers a open hole in the ground full of discarded limbs. The finale in the House of Representatives is classic Spielberg, especially Michael Stuhlbarg's big moment towards the end (get what I mean about a huge cast?) and Lewis' understated acting as he awaits the result (bathed in Janusz Kaminski's light as John Williams fills the soundtrack). That said, at 150 minutes this is a lengthy film, although given that it's virtually all talk and political machinations, it's surprisingly easy to follow- even for non history buffs.
For me anyways, LINCOLN is about on par with THE WAR HORSE and MUNICH- both of which I loved (although I may be in the minority- and I have a hunch this will be more universally acclaimed than those) although perhaps a notch below the real classics. Still, B plus or A minus Spielberg is probably better than A plus almost anyone else.
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|Extra Tidbit:||No vampire hunting in this one.|